There’s a point in Mike Daisey’s theatrical monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” where my heart felt particularly laden. No it wasn’t the story about the old man who injured his hand making an Apple iPad, a metal machine crushing his fingers into some grotesque circular ball. (He was later fired because he couldn’t do his work on the assembly line fast enough.) Nor was it at the beginning of the piece when Daisey landed at the gates of FoxConn, the largest electronics manufacturer in China where 50% of all electronic products in the world are made, and spoke to a few workers many of whom were under age 15. Nor was it was the time that he spoke to a female assembly line worker who had been fired and listed as a “trouble maker,” after she complained to China’s labor board about her working conditions. These incidents, while tragic, didn’t move me. Let me explain.
My life is strife. Well, it’s to document and cover strife to be exact. I’ve spent the better part of eight years traveling the globe listening to the many horrors that men inflict upon others from religious war and conflict, to rape, child sexual abuse and Christian persecution. More than 18 years covering the world’s ills gives you a sort of Teflon immunity of the kind that makes your friends wonder if you’re “working too hard,” and your boyfriends question whether you have “feelings”. Yes, the wall around my heart, built sturdy like a Georgia outhouse, keeps all the bad stuff in and maintains a beautiful exterior.
But there’s a point in this piece, done beautifully by Lance Baker, as a benefit program for the Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood that my outhouse began to crumble.
My breakdown happened when I saw the nets.
Soft and ethereal, barely visible the nets were hung around every building at the Fox Conn plant in May of 2010 after 17 of its 435,000 workers committed suicide within six months. The flying bodies were the first indication that something wasn’t right in paradise.
Previously, American companies such as Dell, Apple and Sony had described Fox Conn, as some sort of manufacturing Disneyland. The massive mass production industrial complex in Taiwan’s Longhua, Guangdong province, boasted pools, workers private dormitories, massive cafeterias and movie theaters. For years that’s the way Steve Jobs and his ilk wanted others to think about Fox Conn’s factories.
You go in this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools. For a factory, it’s pretty nice,’ - Steve Jobs, quoted by the Daily Mail Reporter in June 2010.
But there were rumors. Rumors of long hours, child labor, slipping morale. None of this surprised me. I have been to China and have talked to Chinese citizens who were forced to make soccer balls, and plastic lighters during their Chinese imprisonment. Their crime – not attending the state sponsored churches. How Chinese “troublemakers,” were routinely beaten, arrested, kidnapped and would frequently disappear. I had met some of those people who for whatever reason ended up in prison or crippled because they dare tangle with the communist regime. I had heard with my own ears the communist’s government commitment to cutting labor costs, no matter the human toll.
So my harden heart went to the Baker production with an intellectual’s understanding of the cost of our “Made in China,” it’s cheaper at Wal-Mart consumer culture. I was appalled but not surprised at Daisey’s assertion at the atrocities he heard about at the Fox Conn factory he visited in the summer of 2010.
Though I raged against the machine, I tacitly accepted that the appliances in my home, the clothes I wore, the shoes I bought were not manufactured as ethically as I liked. But I felt imprisoned by this knowledge. What was I to do? Have you ever tried buying apparel that wasn’t made in China? Or anything from Target? It ain’t easy. Besides, I spend most of my waking hours telling the story of the people struggling with poverty, oppression and persecution. Didn’t that balance out the fact my new laptop was probably made by some 13-year street urchin?
But the nets…man those freaking nets. The nets were a metaphor for the workers who hand-crafted my iPhone. Like those nets, the Chinese workers, barely registered in my vision. And like the Chinese workers, the nets were an efficient solution to address a growing problem.
I have long struggled with the after effects of today’s capitalism. The growing environmental damage, the dead men walking across borders just to pick fruit, the largess and excess of the multi-billionaires who flaunt their private jets, celebrity-clad parties and lavish lifestyles as a pinnacle of success, while the workers whose blood, sweat and tears made them rich can’t buy groceries. I’ve struggled not because I don’t despise those aforementioned effects of commercialism, but because I ain’t never seen a poor man give another poor man a job. I haven’t seen a system, beyond capitalism, where the most people can achieve the most happiness in the span of less than a generation.
And I’ve also been to Cuba and let me tell you Michael Moore didn’t show you the half of it. He didn’t show you the ration cards each Cuban has that puts them on a food quota and forces them to go to the black market if they go beyond that quota. Or how Cubans do not own the homes they live in but lease them from the government. Or that Cuba is filled with 1950s classic cars not because it’s stuck on the past but that these are the only individual assets many families had that were grandfathered in after the revolution. So when a car is the only thing you can call your own, well you tend to take care of it and keep it.
And then there was Leo, my Cuban rickshaw driver, who told me wistfully that he wish he could travel outside Cuba to study, but he couldn’t, the government wouldn’t let him.
Communism may seem like a way to equally distribute wealth but it’s funny how all the wealth ends up in the party’s coffers while the workers are no better off than they were under the industrialists. So I’ve always preferred a jobs-creating, capitalist society where the individual can achieve as much as he or she wants through hard work, dedication, common sense and individual personal responsibility.
But those nets man…they are evidence of our corporations’ violation of their citizens’ contracts. As citizens we figuratively make a social contract with the world. The world lets us pursue our dreams as long as we do not infringe upon the rights of other individuals and help each other out from time to time. Corporations are always talking about how they are citizens – ie., free speech through political payouts. But they rarely act like it.
“I’m here to make money,” one capitalist said, “not friends.”
Oh there are a few heroes, Patagonia for one, but most corporations leave a lot to be desired when it comes to corporate responsibility and human rights. But Apple, well, they were supposed to be different. They were creating technology that would change the world – for the better right? Now I find Apple, the self-styled manufacturer of the elite, the future, built by the most famous humanist, well, they aren’t practicing what they polluted into our minds. It’s a shock we may never recover from.
I was in overseas recently and was sitting around a table with a group of people who supported the same organization I did. As we were talking about the recession, its causes, one person in particular interrupted me as I began to talk with “Well, what’s the most profitable company in America?”
And I looked at her and said, “Apple.”
And she looked aghast. “No it’s Exxon.”
I shook my head. “Apple surpassed it this quarter.”
The table got quiet. The only thing you heard were the dogs barking outside. And then incredibly people went back to bashing oil companies.
For years, Big Oil was the symbol of the evils of capitalism. Profit at all costs, was it’s motto, no matter the damage even the hurting of ecosystems and habitats and human beings. The BP spill pretty much guaranteed Big Oil’s induction into the Bad Corporation Hall of Fame. But our economic Satan has been dethroned. And Apple, with its $500 billion market share, it’s 60% profits and its $100 billion in cash reserves, is our new enemy now. But I wonder…how many of us will even take up the fight?